Read the transcript of the entire debate HERE
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I will be quick. I congratulate Joan Walley on her opening remarks and her brilliant chairmanship of the Committee, of which I am proud to be a member. I will focus briefly on marine protected areas, which were a significant part of the report that we put together.
As Members will know, the oceans are under unprecedented pressure. It is estimated that 90% of all large fish are gone and that 15 of the world’s 17 large fisheries either have collapsed or are on the brink of collapse. A recent study published in Science magazine predicted that all the world’s fisheries will collapse by 2048 if current trends are allowed to continue. That matters for many different reasons—for biodiversity reasons, clearly, but also from a human point of view. One billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein and 200 million depend indirectly on fishing as a source of livelihood, yet we continue to ravage the systems that provide fish, including one third of all mangroves, which we must not forget are the breeding ground for 85% of commercial fish. Only 5%—the true figure is probably less—of coral reefs are considered pristine nowadays. There is a lot that we need to do.
I will skip through the issues, such the lawlessness of the high seas, the fact that 1% of the world’s fleets are responsible for catching 50% of the world’s fish, and the fact that there are fishing lines that would stretch all the way from Westminster to Brighton and 10 billion hooks floating around the oceans. I will assume that Members agree that it is impossible to reconcile those tools of destruction with any hope of a sustainable future for our oceans.
I will focus on marine protected areas, because notwithstanding the remarks made by Jeremy Corbyn, they are the easiest, quickest and least controversial way of protecting the oceans. We know that marine protected areas work. During world war two, when fishing was prevented in the Atlantic, fish populations soared incredibly quickly. Spain has a terrible record on fishing around the world, but catches close to the famous Tabarca marine reserve, the country’s first, are 85% higher than elsewhere after just six years of protection. There are many other examples, which I am afraid I will not be able to mention.
Governments have agreed, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned, an international target of protecting 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020, but progress has been incredibly slow, with less than 3% being given any protection at all and only 1% any real protection. That is depressing, but the good news is that we do not have to wait for international action or international agreement. The UK is in a position to show leadership, with or without our international partners. We have the fifth largest and the most diverse marine zone in the world—6.8 million sq km, comprising nearly 2% of the world’s oceans—and the vast majority of it is in the UK overseas territories, which between them harbour 90% of UK biodiversity.
Our report makes it clear that UK overseas territories are calling on the UK Government to help them to establish marine protected areas, and of course we must., Notwithstanding some of the comments that we just heard, we have made some progress, including the designation in 2010 of the British Indian Ocean Territory as the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve. However, we must consider three more hugely important territories: Pitcairn, Ascension and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
The Pitcairn Islands are, as many hon. Members will know, remote and neither polluted nor overfished. Their fish populations, including of top predators such as sharks, are healthy, and they have some of the best coral reefs in the world. They have intact deep-sea habitats and many species new to science. At present, they are totally unprotected and unpoliced, and it is only a matter of time before the area is devastated. A marine sanctuary there would be celebrated globally as one of the most significant conservation measures ever taken by any Government. The Pitcairns submitted a proposal to the Foreign Office last year for a highly protected marine reserve, which was supported unanimously by their population.
The second obvious opportunity is South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which are uninhabited, so we would struggle to get the lottery machines there, although we could probably put a symbolic one there, just to get through the ridiculous legalistic response by the Government to that proposal. The islands have a vast marine area that is recognised worldwide for the importance of its wildlife. Home to more than 100 million seabirds and half the world’s population of southern elephant seals, it is one of the world’s most diverse and scientifically significant regions on the planet. The islands have already been identified as a priority for protection by the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources. A large-scale, fully protected marine reserve could be implemented with only a minor impact on current fishing or fishery income.
The third opportunity—I would go so far as to say that it is a golden opportunity—is Ascension Island, which lies in the middle of the rich equatorial waters of the south Atlantic. It is the peak of a gigantic undersea volcano. It holds the second largest green turtle nesting site in the Atlantic and is one of the most important tropical seabird breeding stations in the world. Its waters are full of significant populations of big ocean predators, including tuna, dolphins, sharks and marlin. A review of management options for Ascension’s maritime area is already under way, so the UK Government have an opportunity right now to declare a large and highly protected marine conservation area.
Politically, those steps are relatively easy and can happen incredibly quickly. The difficulty is, of course, in policing and enforcement, which inevitably come with some cost, but it is not clear how much. I believe that Pew told the Select Committee that the cost of policing Pitcairn would be around £600,000 per annum. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands already have enforcement capability provided through a dedicated patrol ship, periodic visits from the Royal Navy, and occasional overflights by the Royal Air Force, while UK Government vessels regularly visit Ascension. Clearly we need a step change to improve monitoring, with proper vessel monitoring systems as mentioned earlier, and advances in remote sensing and satellite technology. That can come in time. To use a cliché, we cannot allow the best to become the enemy of the good.
Given their importance to nature and human livelihoods, the proven and unarguable benefits of MPAs, the fact that we have it in our power today to create the world’s largest fully protected marine reserves, and that even the more extravagant costs associated with protecting those sites represent only the tiniest fraction of the annual funding of the Department for International Development, that surely represents good value for money. Here is a golden opportunity for the Government; they just have to stop dragging their feet and take the opportunity.